EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — It's far too early to pass judgment on Hugo Sanchez's reign as coach of Mexico's national soccer team. But it does appear he's growing into the job.
After watching a spirited Cuban squad outplay his team during the first half of its Gold Cup opener Friday at Giants Stadium, Sanchez slowed down his offense, brought attacker Francisco "Kikin" Fonseca off the bench, then watched Mexico rally for a 2-1 victory that kept its title hopes alive.
But Sanchez spent most of his postgame media conference talking not about his halftime changes, but railing instead against what he called the "torturous" and "leg-killing" conditions of the Giants Stadium turf.
"You can't play on a soccer field this bad," he said. "It's like playing in sand. It's the first time in my life that, in the United States, I've seen a field this bad."
Sanchez, fearing injury for his players, said he would discuss his options with Mexican and Gold Cup officials, saying he'll push for a change of venue. But he stopped short of threatening an official protest or pulling out of the tournament.
"We'll file a petition, an application. I don't know what we can do," he said.
After trying unsuccessfully to outrun the energetic Cubans in the first half -- a failing Sanchez blamed largely on the field conditions -- Mexico brought out a more deliberate offense for the second half. And that, plus the insertion of Fonseca and the play of the indefatigable Nery Castillo, playing his first competitive game for Mexico, turned things around.
Not surprisingly it was Fonseca and Castillo who hooked up for the deciding goal in the 56th minute, with Fonseca getting off a right-footed blast from the edge of the penalty area that Cuban keeper Odelin Molina stopped but couldn't control. With Molina on the ground, Castillo, rushing in from the goalie's right, had no problem tapping the rebound home, averting what would have been a major upset.
"The first game in every tournament, whether it's against Brazil or any other weaker team, it's always a difficult game," Castillo said. " ... Now we have to keep working hard in our next games to make sure we don't commit the same errors we committed in this game."
Playing without injured captain Rafael Marquez, Mexico's defense had no answer for forward Reynier Alcantara in the first half, with the Cuban opening the scoring in the 22nd minute after Mexico's Pavel Pardo lost the ball near midfield. And Alcantara almost scored again eight minutes later, but his shot from inside the penalty area sailed high.
Mexico's quick forwards, who spent much of the match dashing in and around the Cuban defense, finally answered in the 38th minute on a header by Jared Borgetti, who redirected a pass from Adolfo Bautista to the left of Molina.
In Friday's first match, surprising Panama, a finalist in the last Gold Cup, outlasted Honduras, 3-2, in a physical match that featured seven yellow cards.
Panama never trailed, getting first-half goals from Carlos Rivera and Blas Perez sandwiched around a score from Honduras' Amado Guevara, formerly of Chivas USA.
But it was Jose Luis Garces' goal in the 82nd minute, which looked to be an insurance goal, that turned out to be the winner when Carlos Costly scored for Honduras in extra time.